August 18, 2006

Guest Column 2 – Geek News

Why is networking so hard? After all these years, it should be easy by now. In theory, it is. After all, every Windows computer has built-in file and printer sharing. (Please, no e-mails from Mac owners. I’m talking about the real world that most of us have to suffer in.)

Just turn it on and away you go, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. Something often goes wrong, even in the most basic of configurations. However, they particularly go wrong if you try to do something unusual, and all too often it’s because of lousy documentation and installation programs.

A case in point is my Hawking printer-sharing device, and a great little device it is, too. It sits on my network. Any computer on the network can connect directly to the printer. Of course, you can connect a printer to a computer on the network, then print through that computer. But that means you have to leave that computer on permanently, and, at least in my household, getting to the printer always seems to be a problem. Either the computer’s been turned off, or it’s locked up. (I said we’re talking Windows here.)

Anyway, with a printer-sharing device there’s no longer any need to worry about which computer the printer is connected to, because it’s connected to a little box that is in turn connected to the network. I have this device connect to the internal network in the condo I just purchased, so any computer plugged into the network can print.

That’s great. But getting the stupid thing installed was more trouble than it should have been. The device comes with a program that automatically configures the device, or at least that’s the theory. In the real world – that is, my house, a few weeks ago – the program could not configure the device. Hey, I followed instructions, and at the end of the process I couldn’t print to the device.

Now, I have very little patience with computer hardware and software companies. When I have problems they are almost invariably caused by shoddy product design or shoddy documentation. So I have no compunction in calling and spending as long as it takes on the phone. I really don’t care if the company spends more in tech-support costs than the profit on the device they sold me, as, in fact, they often do. They should have thought of that before they sold me a half-finished product.

What did I discover when I called Hawking? That you really don’t need the software provided with the product. That’s just there to make it “easier” for you to configure the product. No, you can configure the product very quickly by connecting directly to the box through a Web browser, as long as you know the secret IP number. In fact, using this method not only is easy, it’s easier than the software program provided, it’s more likely to work, and it’s not explained in the documentation with the product. Within minutes of calling Hawking, I had the device up and running.

Why, oh why, do companies insist on this sort of nonsense? They create a badly designed, confusing piece of software that may not work properly and don’t provide clear documentation, especially if you have a really simple process that works well and could be described in a couple of paragraphs.

Talking of wireless routers, you may recall my column a little while ago about how manufacturers grossly overstate wireless transmission rates. Well, here’s another problem I ran into recently: strong signals actually block out weaker signals.

Let’s say you’re trying to connect to a wireless hotspot. There’s a really strong signal coming from one hotspot, but you can’t connect to it because it’s locked. There’s another hotspot that’s weaker, but it’s open. In some cases, you may not be able to use the open hotspot, because the strong – yet inaccessible – hotspot will block access to the weak – yet open – hotspot. Turn off the strong signal, and you may find that you can instantly access the weak device and that despite the weak signal you get a decent connection.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a neighbor’s hotspot blocks access to your own wireless device. Let’s say you try to access your device from your back yard, from a position in which you just happen to be close to a wall behind which your neighbor has placed a wireless router. You have a perfectly good signal coming from your router the other side of your house, and were it not for your neighbor you would be happily surfing the Web right now. But you can’t because your neighbor’s signal blocks it!

Don’t misunderstand, I love Wi-Fi, but as with all other computer technology, it can make you pull your hair out.

Peter Kent is an e-commerce consultant in Denver. He can be reached at www.PeterKentConsulting.com or GeekNews@PeterKentConsulting.com.

Why is networking so hard? After all these years, it should be easy by now. In theory, it is. After all, every Windows computer has built-in file and printer sharing. (Please, no e-mails from Mac owners. I’m talking about the real world that most of us have to suffer in.)

Just turn it on and away you go, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. Something often goes wrong, even in the most basic of configurations. However, they particularly go wrong if you try to do something unusual, and all too often it’s because of lousy documentation and installation programs.

A case in…

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